Mention transparency in public life and one is reminded of Justice Louis Brandeis’ quote that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants…” Our political leaders, however, seem to disagree. Their opposition to the ruling of the full bench of the Central Information Commission, placing six political parties under the purview of the Right to Information Act, is proof of this. The move to bring parties under the RTI is a positive step towards ensuring transparency and thereby reducing corruption in public life.
Contrary to the view held by the parties, the country’s transparency watchdog felt that parties are public bodies as they are allotted prime property at concessional rates and get free air time on the public broadcast platforms of All India Radio and Doordarshan. The parties — the Congress, the BJP, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI and the Bahujan Samaj Party — have been given six weeks to appoint public information officers who will reply to RTI queries.
It is too early to call the judgement a watershed moment that will lead to a reduction in corruption because the six political parties can challenge the ruling in a high court. And the government on Tuesday said that it will approach the high court on the CIC judgement. The JD(U), which is not one of the six parties, has reacted sharply with its president Sharad Yadav saying that the move is not justified and that “political parties are not shops”.
The CPI(M) has also rejected the CIC’s order. The BJP has said it would prefer a larger debate on the issue and the ruling Congress has called it an “adventurist” approach that it will “create a lot of harm and damage to democratic institutions”.
Interestingly, the Trinamool Congress has welcomed the order. The fear expressed by parties that they will be flooded with RTI applications on sundry issues is misplaced as the law does not give blanket powers and has sufficient safeguards to deny frivolous requests.
In the US, Britain and Canada, to name a few, disclosure laws make it mandatory for political parties to make public all financial details. In this context it should be mentioned that a relatively newer political party, the Aam Aadmi Party has been more upfront about its means of funding. The question that needs to be asked is: If there is nothing to hide, why fear the RTI or any other mechanism of transparency.